Influence of Handling Method on Adrenal Activity in Zoo African and Asian Elephants
As a first step towards investigating the effect of management choice – free contact (FC) or protected contact (PC) – on zoo elephant well-being, this study evaluated serum cortisol concentrations in weekly samples collected over a 2-year period from 112 female elephants (58 African, 54 Asian) managed in either FC (n=58) or PC (n=54) management systems at 48 facilities. Results showed there were no differences in overall or baseline mean concentrations of serum cortisol between the two management systems. A GLM analysis exploring the response of individual baseline cortisol concentration to management (FC vs PC), facility, species, and the interaction of management and facility revealed that the only parameter with significant explanatory power was the facility where the elephants were housed. Thus, it may be more important to evaluate specific facility effects on adrenal activity, such as enclosure conditions, enrichment opportunities, or social interactions, rather than handling technique. Although many zoos are moving to a PC management approach, particularly within the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, from a welfare standpoint there is probably not a one-size-fits-all management strategy that is ideal. Rather, it may be necessary to consider individual elephant coping styles and social needs on a case by case basis before deciding whether FC or PC is most appropriate for management, especially when considering how to address welfare concerns.
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